Don’t let them sell you! Disarming the aggressive salesperson through ratification

Do you remember the last 24-hour period in which no one tried to sell you something? Can’t say that I do. From ever-cheaper utilities to ever-faster Wi-Fi, it seems that everyone is selling. And while slamming the door or ending the call is often the obvious option, uncomfortable instances remain when—thanks to the salesperson’s guile or our own curiosity about the product—we allow the selling process to proceed.

Putting up with pushy salespeople is unpleasant…but negotiable!

Today I’ll describe a simple yet effective antidote to the aggressive seller. Ironically, it’s one of their own secret weapons: a strategy called ratification.

Consider the following situation. Eating your dinner in peace, a friendly neighbor knocks on the door. At least you think it’s a friendly neighbor until you find a slick man with enough cologne to wilt your flowers outside. “Hi there, I’m Ted,” he says before you can slam the door. “Would you like to save 25% on your electricity bill RIGHT NOW?” Caught off guard and still reeling from your last electric bill, you can’t help blurting out a “Maybe.” Well, now Ted’s off to the races. He has plan upon plan, each with illustrative figures and glowing testimonials from beautiful people. He has your current electricity usage in RED, next to a large GREEN number indicating your potential savings. He has a long list of sign-ups—allegedly from your neighbors, though you can’t read their handwriting. Most importantly, he has a pen in his sweaty palm and a dotted line on his clipboard, just waiting for your signature. Oh no, and now he’s smiling at you…

Now there’s no supercomputer on earth that could’ve processed all those figures and statistics in the time that Ted allowed, and you certainly couldn’t either. So you’re not really sure what he’s offering. But the red number DOES look pretty bad, and green number DOES sound pretty good. What should you do?

WAIT. And make Ted wait. Until you understand what you’re signing, there’s no way you should agree to his plan. Does that seem obvious? Maybe so, but decades of research on compliance suggest that relatively few of us will do it. More to the point here, even if we know not to sign, it’s not particularly clear how to resist Ted’s guile. This Ted’s a wily one, and telling him you’ve got to “think about it” probably won’t cut it. He’s likely to inform you that the deal “expires today” or some such gobbleygook, at which point you may be tempted to begrudgingly take the pen. So instead of telling Ted you’ve got to think about it, tell Ted that you have to check with X. Now X could be your spouse, your roommate, your landlord—whomever: 1) might actually have to approve such a deal before you sign it, and 2) is not actually present. Now, Ted may still insist that the deal expires today. But having publicly declared yourself incapable of deciding without a non-present party, you cannot credibly sign, and he cannot credibly protest.

This is a well-documented strategy called ratification. You’ve probably been on the receiving end at a car dealer. “You’ve sold me,” the dealer says, “but I’ve gotta check with the boss in back.” The truth is, it’s a tactic. They don’t usually “check with the boss,” say students with experience in car dealers. They grab a coffee, check the Orioles’ score, or use the bathroom. If they do talk to their boss, it’s probably about the Orioles’ score. Likewise, you don’t have to check with your spouse, your roommate, or your landlord (though in the case of your spouse, you’re strongly advised to). The point is to find an escape valve that Ted’s tactics cannot easily disarm. Only then, without his cologne poisoning your bloodstream, will you have the willpower to say yes if it’s a good deal and no if it’s not. So if you’re actually interested in Ted’s offerings, by all means take his card and check with X. As to Ted’s claim that the deal is expiring today? You can rest assured that if he’s that eager to sell it, it won’t disappear tomorrow (though you may have to ask for it).

Have you ever used this strategy to disarm an aggressive salesperson? Has an aggressive salesperson used it on you?